Happy with Less: A Feminist Take on the Personal Growth Self-Help Industry

Through a feminist lens, the self-help industry is sometimes ethically problematic, as noted by various scholars. In particular, the personal growth self-help industry presents a bioethics issue surrounding mental and physical health, equality, justice, employment discrimination, and child care. It challenges the balance between pursuing more and being content with what one has. Some self-help ignores the determinants of health, mental health, and economic upward mobility. This post calls for critical theory and feminism to analyze the role of personal growth self-help in lowering expectations and outcomes.

Critiques of Self-Help

Many self-help critiques focus on the individual aspect, arguing that self-help undermines the collective, especially women. Self-help perpetuates the use of psychology over public policy to create change. The individual aspect over the collective is not the only problem. Personal growth self-help undermines the individuals who would challenge the status quo more if they were not being taught that they must change. It divides and conquers by redirecting women’s attention toward analyzing themselves. But personal growth self-help hurts not only the collective voice of women, it sacrifices the uniqueness and individuality in favor of a robotic sameness. The industry is designed to make people “better”. Many women in the self-help landscape might each achieve a change in someone else were they not directed to change themselves.

For example, challenging a discriminatory boss who promoted a man with less experience has more individual and societal value than self-blame, self-analysis, and ultimately acceptance of one’s lesser position. The worst outcome of self-help is the personal complacency it yields. Change the male boss not the woman. Some women drop the fight for what they want altogether while they focus on themselves. Self-help has the power to make some women who want to reenter the workforce feel “happy” with child-rearing or settle for direct sales or inferior paying positions instead of a positions reflecting their skills and education. When seriously abused, self-help makes people question their emotional responses.

People should not exclusively blame others or society for an inability to achieve some defined success. Individuals should be held to high standards. I am in favor of nutrition, health, lifestyle, and exercise data, or improving organizational skills, and making objective changes, even to outlook, work ethic, or attitude. Some of those changes may be bodily and others emotional. But personal growth self-help legitimizes settling for less.

The Blurring of Professions in Self-Help

“You’re Not Broke You’re Pre-Rich” is a self-help book. So is “The Secret.” Through different mechanisms, both strategies imply that ignorance as to the tools to become rich is the reason you are not rich. One offers unrealistic financial advice. The other suggests a positive outlook draws money to you.

Positive psychology introduced the concept that thinking positive thoughts influences outcome and emotion. Positive psychology diverts focus to positive thoughts and behaviors. In “The Gendered Nature of Self-Help”, Sarah Riley, Adrienne Evans, and Emma Anderson assert most “psychological frameworks in the self-help literature” “share a similar vision of a flawed individual whose route to a better life rests on developing greater self-mastery over their thoughts and/or behaviours.” Riley, et al. say “in giving up the “fight against”, such perspectives within self-help minimise structural inequalities and refute collective resistance against such inequality.” The Secret is in the vein of positive psychology at the intersection of religion. It suggests that thinking positively alone will draw financial and relationship success.

“Remember that your thoughts are the primary cause of everything.”― Rhonda Byrne, The Secret

While I assert that is simply not true, it can be a religious or spiritual statement. But the Secret blends assertions about behavioral sciences, employment, and financial success, with non-factual beliefs.  

Happierhuman.com, “backed by science”, a psychology-based self-help website, depicts women in many of its articles about happiness, mindfulness, and other emotions. While the research is scientific, the type of research may be detrimental to those individuals who would explore making change outside themselves. The website has pros and cons and probably helps some people.

But, mindset is not everything. By muddying the waters between religion, psychology, and advice, self-help conflates personal control unrealistically and uses professionals and pseudo-professionals to validate its ideas. Ideas surrounding destiny do not belong in medical, psychological, or science-based books. New careers like life coaching or other counseling broadened who interprets and delivers empirical research to consumers. (In that vein, I delivered nutrition data.) Personal growth combines topics adding a spiritual or religious element to the science and social sciences where it does not belong. In evaluating the recommendation of self-help books by psychologists, David J. Tobin and Jessica L. Bordonaro citing Rosen, G.M. said “the proliferation of untested do-it-yourself books reflected commercial considerations rather than professional standards.” 

Does Self-Help Work?

While there is not enough empirical data about the value of personal growth self-help, one article suggests pros and cons. In “Do Self-Help Books Help?” Ad Bergsma found self-help books get a message to a larger audience. Yet certain self-help books like those that have people imagine weight loss to achieve it, are ineffective. (As a nutrition counselor, I distinguish psychological self-help from nutrition science or even from advice on incorporating fresh foods into one’s lifestyle.) The empirical data, albeit incomplete, also might miss the big picture problem. The data possibly suggesting that those engaging in psychological self-help cope better or achieve personal growth might also prove my assertion: self-help makes people complacent and happy with less.

Bergsma also cites studies of self-help book users finding most are women, psychology-oriented, and believe in self-control. In one study, many had “greater life satisfaction”. It is likely that self-help books, retreats, webinars, etc. do help some people in many satisfying ways, as demonstrated by numerous testimonials and back covers. Many people engage in expensive self-improvement retreats or webinars. Yet personal financial success depends on almost infinite factors including personal attributes, society, public policy, social norms, and life circumstances. The biggest factor affecting wealth is wealth at birth.

Photo by Jared Rice on Unsplash Self-help and self-care often require a big budget.

The Backdrop for Highly Educated Women

For many women, money-making and career satisfaction can be difficult to achieve, especially if any years were spent raising children. Many people outside the traditional workforce (9 to 5 jobs outside the home) have blogs, small sales businesses, or extensively volunteer even in professional level leadership positions. Yet their skills are rarely seen as good enough to those hiring in the traditional employment arena based on both education and field. Among households with two highly educated parents, many women defer to men whose jobs require long hours. That is, among the highest paying jobs excessive hours became a requirement. Almost 30 percent of women do not work in the traditional job market and raise children. Among those with higher educations, many have trouble reentering the job force despite valuable skills.

The smartest people I know have been or are mothers not in the traditional (or any) workforce. I know that is probably because of the privilege of living in New York City among a highly educated populace. Yet something is amiss when they can’t find jobs commensurate with their experience and skills. Organizations like the On Ramp Fellowship program have helped and the now obsolete Pace Law School New Directions for Attorneys program helped me.

With difficulty finding careers that appreciate one’s level of education, life experience, and expertise, some women resort to improving themselves, a path that often leads to learning to be happy even if they earn less than they deserve, have fewer job opportunities than their male counterparts despite qualifications, and are unduly penalized for taking years off to raise children. A lack of childcare, a structure in which the highest paying jobs require extra time commitment, and an unwillingness in most industries to value nontraditional work hurt women.

Many women have achieved a return to a great career that challenges them and uses their skills. Others are extremely content with or without the self-help industry. It is the source of the contentment among that subset using the self-help industry that is at issue.

How Do We Problematize Self-Help?

The personal development market is a 38-billion-dollar industry. Yet free speech is a cornerstone and protects a marketplace for all points of view and many benefit from self-help. The industries are consumer-based. The consumers represent all income levels.

The problematizing must include the context that allowed self-help to develop its current trajectory and the negative, anti-feminist effects of self-help. Why do some people see themselves as in need of personal growth?

The categorical distinction between spiritual hopefulness and psychology is blurred and in need of repair. The positive psychology movement fuels the personal growth part of the self-help industry.

Is happiness an important or worthy goal?

When the problem is the individual versus the collective, the typical critique, then the need for individual responsibility may be underestimated. Self-help may deprive individuals of a valuable tendency to challenge the status quo. (It might however empower some to do so.)

More Data and a Framework of Oppression

In the self-help realm, theories of oppression could be helpful. Self-help may improve someone’s life but that improvement must be weighed against the opportunity cost of other potential improvements, both individual and across society.

Photo by Noah Buscher on Unsplash

Partial Bibliography

Riley S, Evans A, Anderson E, Robson M. The gendered nature of self-help. Feminism & Psychology. 2019;29(1):3-18. doi:10.1177/0959353519826162

David J. Tobin Jessica L. Bordonaro. Self-help books: An area of ethical responsibility for professional counselors. Gannon University.   https://www.shsu.edu/piic/spring2008/tobin.html

Schilling KM, Fuehrer A. The Politics of Women’s Self-Help Books. Feminism & Psychology. 1993;3(3):418-422. doi:10.1177/0959353593033021 (older article)

Rosen, G. M. (1987). Self-help treatment books and the commercialization of psychotherapy. American Psychologist, 42(1), 46–51. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.42.1.46

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